Diane Davis’ Breaking Up (At) Totality, Leslie Jones & Twitter Trolls

Continuing my summer reading, I arrive at Diane Davis’ Breaking Up (at) Totality: A Rhetoric of Laughter.  Though I’ve rarely seen it cited, in my opinion, this is a key rhet-comp text.  I’d like to give a quick summary, then apply Davis’ ideas to a recent media event— Ghostbusters actor Leslie Jones being chased off Twitter by racist trolls.  I find Davis’ work highly descriptive of the current media environment.  But does it offer a prescription to help us survive said environment?

For my money, Breaking Up, with its stylistic wordplay and utter rejection of foundations, represents the zenith of postmodern rhet-comp theorizing.  Following Derrida, Avital Ronell and Victor Vitanza, Davis argues that language is suffused with what she calls “laughter,” a form of erotic energy.  Reason and logic, along with conventional discursive forms, inevitably attempt to clean up this eroticism, to pin down meaning.  This project is doomed to failure though.  The result is that subjects and social structures (which from Davis’s pomo perspective are an effect of language) remain fluid, unstable.  Davis celebrates this sense of fluidity and excess.  “To be spoken by a language contorted in laughter,” she writes, “is to be spoken by language on the loose: no/thing is excluded, censored, or negated” (95).

I’m struck by the similarities between the discursive scene Davis describes and that which I encounter everyday on social media.  What is the meme economy but the unchecked proliferation of meaning?  New forms emerge, and with them new logics, only to immediately be submerged by newer forms and logics.  Reason, as embodied in traditional philosophical discourse, has no place here.  Same with morality.  The old rules—about who can speak, what they can say and how they can say it—simply do not apply.  Instead, laughter in its most primal and yes, erotic, manifestation rules the day.

Consider the racist trolls hounding Leslie Jones.  Working under the auspices of notorious alt-righter Milo Yiannopoulus, they swamped her Twitter feed with racist insults and forged screenshots suggesting she made homophobic remarks.  Here we see language wildly out of control.  There’s no demand for “facts” or “objective” referent, no limitations on what meanings can be conjured.  Jones is a comedian and actor?  Jones is the source of AIDS?  Jones believes we need to “gas dese faggots”?  Driven by a desire for “lolz”, and unchecked by either formal restrictions (rules regarding spelling and grammar, for example) or social/technological restrictions, meanings proliferate.  Language, pulsing with vulgar, grotesque human desire, really is on the loose.  No/thing is excluded.

So, in essence, what we have on Twitter is a world where anyone can say anything, think anything—and for many subjects, especially marginalized ones like Ms. Jones, this excess is terribly traumatic.  So what should be done?  The first impulse for many, as Davis suggests, is to try and limit potential meanings, re-erect some of the barriers postmodernity has torn down.  On Twitter, this typically takes the form of appeals to authority (demands that trolls be banned, for example).  According to Davis though, all attempts to limit meaning will inevitably fail.  Indeed, there seems to be a direct relationship between censorship and erotic power—the more we attempt to restrict certain meanings (the racism of the trolls, for example), the more erotically charged those meanings become.  Simply put, the more we protest, the more lolz.

So we can’t restrict meaning.  What then?  It’s a bit tenuous, but I would suggest that Davis does offer something like a solution.  Quoting Victor Vitanza, she suggests an “antibody rhetoric” capable of “enhancing our abilities to tolerate the incommensurabilities” which make up the postmodern condition (102).  As I read it, such a rhetoric demands a rejection of foundations, a rejection of even the pretense of objective reference.  In short, it means we must come to view language—even terrible, hurtful language– as a laughing matter.

Let’s put this vision to work.  In the case of Leslie Jones versus the trolls, we have competing desires—namely, to enjoy Twitter (Jones) and to cause pain in the name of lolz (trolls).  These desires are incommensurable.  And they fuel meanings which are also incommensurable.  Going back to the erotic power of censorship, perhaps the way to drain power from the latter is through a sort of radical acceptance.  Jones must come to “tolerate the incommensurabilities,” to laugh with the (admittedly pathetic) desire of the trolls.  If she can do so, perhaps the incommensurabilities will be rendered mute.  The desire of the trolls, and the accompanying meanings, will fade.

Breaking Up (at) Totality is a radical text, as I believe my attempt to apply it to a real-life situation demonstrates.  In short, thinking along with Davis, we come to the conclusion that marginalized, maligned subjects must somehow come to believe that words simply do not matter.  This is a hard position to accept.  Indeed, word merchants of all stripes want us to believe the opposite.  In a world without rules though—which for better or worse is the world of social media—it may be our only option.

Harambe and the Human/Animal Binary

“Human lives are more important than animal lives.”  This is the claim often offered as justification for the recent death (murder?) of Harambe the gorilla.  As with all supposed truisms, there’s a lot of unexamined assumptions at play.  Let’s take a look.

First, what we must avoid, if we want to think critically about this or any subject, is a simple reversal of the proposition to be examined.  To claim something like “nature is more important than the will of humans” in response to the above claim is banal, I’d argue, because it does nothing to escape the logic of the original claim.  It still posits: 1) “nature” and “humans” as concrete, divisible entities; and 2) the feasibility of somehow weighing one against the other. So, a “pro-nature” statement, while bold, isn’t particularly clever.

A more sophisticated analysis begins by breaking down what “human lives are more important than animal lives” really purports to mean.  First, as indicated, it suggests that human lives and animal lives exist in separate spheres, and that the good of the one must be weighed against the good of the other.  Second, it suggests that agreed-upon criteria exist for this measurement.  It is the application of these (invisible) criteria that make the statement “true” in some universal sense.

Once deemed true, the maxim is then brought to bear on particular cases.  What we must remember though is that maxims like this aren’t solely means of post-hoc justification.  Instead, they work to shape our understanding of events as they happen.

We can imagine the above statement as a kind of lens through which we view the encounter between Harambe and the young boy.  Belief in the validity of this statement, and the underlying logic, lead us to see the encounter between boy and gorilla in a certain way—as a zero-sum game, perhaps, as an interaction of opposed entities between which an accounting can and must be made.  This in turn influences our actions.  And the actions of the zookeepers who decided that Harambe needed to die.

Now, the above is not to argue that the keepers made the wrong decision.  (In fact, in situations such as this I’m inclined to respect the judgment of those closest to the action.)  It is to say though that we need to be aware of the ways in which language structures our world.  What happened to Harambe is a terrible tragedy.  My claim is that in this particular case, the logic of our beliefs, by drawing distinctions between certain elements of experience, may make such tragedies more likely to occur.

Blessed Be War: Rhetorical Ethics and the Categorical Imperative

The philosopher Immanuel Kant is perhaps best known for his “categorical imperative”– the notion that in any particular situation one should act in the way they’d want everyone else to act. As a pragmatist, I reject such totalizing claims. Still though, in rhetorical practice we should try to heed Kant’s dictum. In general people speak as they are spoken to. They act as those around them act. We are all responsible, therefore, for setting the tone of debate and discussion.

The above claim is based on a rather simple premise. In short, it assumes that humans are innately social creatures. We look to our environment to determine how we should behave. Much of this attunement is automatic, unconscious. How many times, for example, have you coughed or yawned or chewed your pencil because others around you did? Such adjustment is constant, both on a bodily level (yawning) and an epistemological level (what is understood as proper evidence in a debate, for example). Overtime, norms develop. They are never set in stone though. How we talk, think and engage is fluid, always changing based on the aggregate of millions of trivial encounters. To twist a popular faux Gandhi quote, like it or not, we are the change we see in the world.

Consider the following (particularly outlandish) example. A Florida gunmaker recently began marketing an assault rifle with special features which ensure that it can “never be used by Islamic terrorists.” He claims that his new weapon can combat religious violence. It does so by sporting a cross, various biblical verses and a label which indicates that “God wills” the use of the weapon (seriously).

As is glaringly apparent, this gunmaker, while claiming to be against religious violence, is following the same logic used by those he opposes. Both see violence as justified in the name of religious certainty. It’s just that to the gunmaker, ISIS or Al-Qaeda are certain about the wrong things. His truth and theirs diverge, but the way they go about promoting said truths—the rules they set for engaging with difference– are fundamentally similar.

Presumably my left-leaning reader can see the foolishness of the gunmaker’s stance. He thinks he can combat force with force, not realizing that the behavior he promotes (violence in the name of religion) only leads to force against force, ad infinitum. In short, the end he seeks is impossible under the logic his rhetoric demands.

I’d like to argue that many would-be justice seekers fall into the same trap as the Florida gunmaker. Take for example the idealistic young social justice warrior detailed here. She recently got into a public spat with her professor over whether European treatment of Native Americans constitutes “genocide.” She believes it does because her “grandparents told her.” OK. That’s fine. According to the above article though, she also seems to demand that her professor feel the same. That’s not fine.

A closer look reveals that the student’s logic, like that of the Florida gunmaker, is self-defeating. She claims that “I think X because of my experiences, hence everyone should think X.” Because humans are social creatures though—because we never act in a vacuum—she must assume that for her argument to gain traction others must utilize similar logic. Under such a regime her professor is inevitably pushed to mirror her claim: “I think Y because of my experiences, hence everyone should think Y,” he says. This leads to an unproductive exchange. No minds are opened, no growth is achieved. It’s just a shouting match. Which, as the article indicates, is exactly what happened.

So, to draw a tentative conclusion, I would argue that on a purely practical level we always have to be aware of the rhetorical tone we strike and the implications of the widespread adoption of that tone. If we condone violence, others will condone violence. If we refuse to accept multiple truths, others will do the same. In short, in rhetorical engagement it is unreasonable to expect others—be they ISIS or history professors—to act differently than we do.

Rise of the Bottom-Feeders: Online Discourse, Politics and the Academy

Rhetorical practice is, of course, inherently unstable. With the introduction of new actors, issues and technology, the way people talk and think changes. Anne Applebaum claimed recently that the rhetoric of “The Donald” is representative of such a change. In short, she sees Donald Trump as bringing the vulgarity of online discourse into the political sphere. He’s the “voice of the bottom-feeders.”

I agree with Applebaum that vitriolic online discourse can have (and is having) real-world impact. What defines this discourse though? And what should we do about it?

First, when discussing online discourse, it’s important to keep in mind the extent to which to it represents a radical democratization of language. The barriers to rhetorical dissemination have dropped, those formerly silenced can speak. Viewed in this way, one can easily label Applebaum an elitist. She’s a celebrated foreign policy analyst, a graduate of Yale and Oxford. Certainly the way she speaks (and thinks) diverges from the proletarian norm. And who is to say that her rhetorical style– the one she implicitly advocates for in her attack on Trump– is superior? Rhetorical practice is, after all, inherently unstable. And allowing more people to bring their ways of knowing and speaking into the conversation is good, right?

Yes. But letting more people into the conversation has consequences. In a crowded room, with everyone speaking at once, there’s a strong incentive to yell the loudest. This is what we often see online. On Twitter and Facebook discourse is coarsened, nuance disappears. This often (but not always) acts to undercut the benefits of rhetorical exchange. The experience of the other is not substantively engaged with, opinions do not shift, new bonds are not forged. Instead of conversation we have rhetoric as a sort of therapeutic primal scream.

Applebaum’s concern is that this type of rhetorical practice, via Trump, is infecting politics. I have similar concerns with regard to the academy. Though generalizations are always dangerous, it’s fair to say that a certain mode of sensemaking is typically practiced in the library, lab and classroom. This involves listening, questioning and complication. It typically does not involve yelling really loud about your feelings. Such discursive practices are contingent, of course, but they are not arbitrary. We talk this way because it helps us accomplish the goals of the academic enterprise.

So, assuming that Applebaum is correct and that destructive communication practices are migrating off the internet into other spheres, how should academics respond? As a starting point, I would urge teachers and scholars (and anyone else interested in promoting healthy discourse) to consider their own online behavior. Do we engage with a multitude of opinions? Do we seek to promote this sort of engagement in others? As we move through loud, crowded digital rooms do we insist on speaking (and thinking) with nuance and respect?

Unfortunately, even among educated, left-leaning subjects such behavior is often not the norm. This makes the role of those of us well-versed in academic discourse even more important. We must bring our mode of sensemaking to the public sphere. We must provide a coherent, workable rhetorical model for others to follow. Otherwise, as Applebaum suggests, our students, and eventually our colleagues and we ourselves, are going to be talking (and thinking) just like The Donald.

Wither Cultural Studies?

As a teacher, I have a conflicted relationship with cultural studies. I don’t deny that cultural products are implicated in larger systems of power or that it’s advantageous to be aware of those relationships. I worry though about the rhetorical behavior cultural studies-style pedagogies encourage. In short, as practiced in American universities, cultural studies seems to have no positive program. This makes it “academic” (and not in a good way!). Let me explain.

As I use the term, cultural studies is a mode of cultural analysis which arose in England with the work of thinkers like Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall. It became popular in American universities in the 1990s and though not theorized much these days, still has lingering influence. It general terms, CS involves scrutinizing cultural products to reveal ways in which they are implicated in / work to support unjust power structures. A typical CS pedagogy involves the analysis of an advertisement or film or popular song, the teacher demonstrating how this object constructs its viewer as a consumer, legitimizes an unjust economic order, is racist or sexist, etc.

I admit, cultural studies-style analysis can be fun. It’s intellectual detective work. From a pedagogical perspective though, many have come to see it as something of a dead-end. We show students how to deconstruct cultural products. They do it for a grade. They have no inclination to do it outside the classroom though. Or even if they do, the ability to detect ideological influence doesn’t change their behavior as consumers or citizens.

The above complaint is nothing new. In my field of rhetoric and composition it has been addressed by Patricia Bizzell and Thomas Rickert, among others. My concern is not though that cultural studies is ineffective in bringing about revolution (no pedagogy can, of course). Instead, I worry that it makes any sort of substantive change less likely by encouraging division instead of intersubjective understanding.

As I see it, the ideal cultural-studies subject is skilled at critique, at seeing through the gauzy veneer capitalism throws over its racist/sexist/anti-human machinations. Where does she go from there though? The next step, in line with the mission of Stuart Hall and the Birmingham school, is activism, more often than not defined as “raising awareness.” This typically involves the publication and dissemination of critical findings, the formation of collectives with other critically aware subjects to discuss said critical findings. What comes after that though?

Most often nothing. And herein lies the problem. When cultural studies works it provides for nothing more than the creation of echo chambers in which one can speak / be spoken to by other like-minded subjects. This is what I would argue we are seeing among politically aware students on college campuses today. Their expressions of outrage are so fervent because a pedagogy of critique allows for nothing more than outrage (and confirmation of that outrage). “We see how X is racist/sexist/anti-human,” they scream, “why can’t others?” Because your (cultural studies-influenced) program doesn’t speak to them, I would argue. It’s academic in that it’s in-group speak. It’s therapeutic in that it feels good on an emotional level. It’s not a positive program though in that it includes no mechanism for outreach, the cultivation of shared understanding and thereby, change.

So what would a positive program for cultural studies look like? In my opinion, it would have to be focused on analyzing cultural products to see what they do for the consumer. Yes, American Sniper, for example, is a terribly racist / sexist / xenophobic film. Why does it appeal to so many subjects though? What need does it satisfy and how can we work with these subjects to satisfy said need in less socially destructive ways?

Of course, such a program doesn’t work unidirectionally. In the sort of engagement I propose, the critically aware subject must surrender certainty, be open to change and co-evolution along with the American Sniper-loving good ol’ boy. This is difficult. It’s the opposite of therapeutic because it often feels really fucking bad to have your beliefs challenged / changed. That said, I think such a program could help revitalize cultural studies as a pedagogical tool. At the very least, it would help cultural critics seem less shrill to those outside their discourse community.

Truth, Action and Climate Change

One of the main tenets of Jamesian pragmatism is the idea that truth is created through action. No statement, this argument goes, is a priori true. Statements only become true when they cause us to act. For example, my belief that a chair can support my weight causes me to sit in it. It is through this action that the statement “the chair can support my weight” becomes true.

This simple method of judging truth can prove quite disruptive. Consider Wild Bill. This is a cantankerous old man whom I used to sit next to on the bus. He claimed to believe that a certain type of honey cures cancer. The pharmaceutical companies are suppressing this fact, he said. But did Bill actually believe that “honey cures cancer” was a true statement? I would argue that he did not. If he would have believed the truth of this statement he would have acted upon it, for example by consuming large amounts of honey or marketing honey to cancer patients. What Bill was doing was a pathological sort of verbalization. Professing this certain belief was doing something for him (supporting his sense of himself as a “subject who knows” perhaps). A Jamesian analysis reveals the hollow nature of his claim.

I think about Wild Bill a lot when considering the current discourse around climate change. Take for example this recent Rolling Stone article. It ties together a lot of disparate facts about heat waves and the behavior of walruses to make a claim that “our climate change nightmares are already here.” Certainly, this sort of alarmist, quasi-apocalyptic discourse appeals to many people (which is why, of course, Rolling Stone is running the article). Does anyone actually believe these apocalyptic claims about melting icecaps and a ten-foot sea level rise though?

No. When viewed from a Jamesian perspective, most of the people who profess a belief in the certainty of radical climate change do not believe their own claims. Very few people, for example, are selling their property in New York or Miami, or investing their kid’s college fund in businesses that stand to gain from global warming. Like Wild Bill, they are not willing to act on their supposed beliefs. This lack of action marks their claims as mere verbalizations, not truth claims per se.

The above analysis has a couple of interesting consequences. First, it helps explain why the left has had so much trouble convincing mainstream America that climate change is a serious problem. If supposed climate change believers don’t even believe, how can they possibly hope to persuade skeptics?

It also makes one wonder what work this apocalyptic discourse is doing for its adherents. What benefit do climate change evangelicals gain from their claims of impending doom? I think clearly there is a social aspect– people purport to hold these beliefs to fit in, gain status in their communities, etc.

Given the prevalence of this apocalyptic discourse though, and the unthinking intensity with which many subjects cling to it, there’s likely something more at work. Perhaps apocalyptic discourse acts as a sort of guilt-release mechanism. Modern bourgeois subjects feel a deep unease about the way they live. To profess to believe that the world is coming to an end because of their Subaru and air conditioning and air travel somehow relives them of this guilt. Such a pathology is interesting to consider. Especially if you’re an apocalypse-prone subject!

The Call of the Donald: Republicans and Anti-Immigration Rhetoric

Could Donald Trump possibly be the next president of the United States? There’s a part of me– an impish, nihilistic little part– that wishes the answer were yes. The Donald is such a repulsive character that his electoral success would confirm every negative notion I’ve ever had about democracy, the current media climate, the American electorate, etc.

Atlas, the Donald is not going to be president. Though in the current summer media doldrums Trump is filling conference rooms, it seems that even the people coming to ogle him aren’t really serious about his candidacy. To my friends on the hard left– those who are certain (and have been since 1848) that capitalism is on the verge of collapse– I can only say sorry, still not there.

That said, I do think Trump has tapped into something. Specifically, I wonder if his hyper-aggressive anti-immigration rhetoric will cause other Republican candidates to recalibrate their positions on this issue. Perhaps I’m delusional, but it seems that there is room on the right for a populist, stridently anti-immigration candidate. Let me explain how this would work.

Since George W. Bush, if not earlier, establishment Republicans have tried to placate a number of competing constituencies on the immigration issue. First, there are business interests, who want lots of immigration, both legal and illegal, because it drives down wages. Second, there’s the white working class, flag-waving folks who love Jesus and guns, but of late have been decimated by falling wages. Finally, there’s Hispanic voters. Generally, when weighing the value of these groups Republicans have favored the business and Hispanic blocks (perhaps feeling that the white working class vote is guaranteed). This has resulted in policies that talk tough about illegal immigration, but in the end, maintain the pro-business, pro-immigration status quo.

As noted, I don’t think many people take Trump seriously. Those who do though are mainly rural white people who respond viscerally to his anti-immigration rhetoric. They’re hurting economically and immigrants, illegal and otherwise, provide a convenient scapegoat (blaming “wetbacks” is a lot easier than trying to suss out the workings of the global economy, after all). A candidate who could stir up enough passion among this group, it seems to me, could largely offset loses with Hispanic voters and maybe even the business set. This becomes especially plausible when you consider, in the general election, that certain areas with many Hispanics (California, Texas) aren’t really in contention. This is in sharp contrast to places like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Missouri– finely balanced swing states with lots of angry, economically disadvantaged white people.

Looking over the Republican field, my attention is drawn to Scott Walker. Among all the Republican candidates he seems to be the most capable of capitalizing on a bluntly “pro-American” message. He has even made some noise about seeking to limit legal immigration. This is a big move. It will be interesting to see if he can siphon off some of the Donald’s nativist energy.